‘Sweet Bird of Youth’, by Tennessee Williams
Chichester Festival Theatre
Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams III is reckoned to be one of the top three American playwrights of the 20th century, together with Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller. The last of his great works, ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’, has stormed into the Chichester Festival Theatre this June. Typically for Williams two lost souls battle for survival in a turbulent sea of alcohol, drugs, disappointment, corruption, blackmail, and sex, where inner turmoils are embroiled with outer hostilities. This is truly an exceptional work and it is a big surprise to learn that there were 26 years between its opening on Broadway and its first production in London.
Elia Kazan, who directed the play in the fifties and most of Tennessee’s other successes, has said: “I think this is the most autobiographical play Williams ever wrote. I believe it is Tennessee in disguise.” The Pulitzer Prize winning author himself said, before he became famous with ‘A Glass Menagerie’ in the forties, that his plays would be a “picture of heart”. What a troubled and tormented heart.
Set in St Cloud, Mississippi, on the Gulf of Mexico, the play opens in the large suite of a hotel where gigolo Chance Wayne (Brian J Smith) staggers out of bed leaving his restless older partner moaning in her sleep. She is ‘the Princess Kosmonoplis’ (aka fading film star Alexandra del Lago, played by Marcia Gay Harden). He has returned to his home town shortly after his mother’s funeral, which he failed to attend. He is desperate to regain the respect of the local people by showing them he is still a player. He also wants to regain the love of his teenage crush, Heavenly Finley (Victoria Bewick), the daughter of local bigwig Boss Finley (Richard Cordery), with his dream of making them both Hollywood stars with the help of Alexandra.
The scene seems familiar territory, with echoes of Williams’ previous big success with ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, first produced in 1955. Paul Newman, who had starred on stage and in the later screen version of that work, was also cast as Chance on Broadway. Williams believed that he was rapidly losing his creativity with age (he was only 48 in 1959) and that process was being hastened by drink and drugs. In 1954 he had said: “I don’t dare turn down a street unless I can sight a bar a block and a half down it.”
In the play the word “monsters” is a prevailing theme. “I like you. You’re a nice monster,” Chance tells Alexandra early in the piece. Much later, she says to him: “Monsters don’t die early; they hang on long. Awfully long. Their vanity’s infinite, almost as infinite as their disgust with themselves.” Yet, these monsters are sad, disempowered creatures, brought low by misconceptions, denial, and unrealised dreams. Alexandra is running away from what she expects to be bad reviews of her recent comeback movie; Chance is living on a dream in which someone else can make him a star where he has failed, and when his attractions are beginning to fade as he approaches his thirties. As Alexandra tells him: “Of course, you were crowned with laurel in the beginning, your gold hair was wreathed with laurel, but the gold is thinning and the laurel has withered. Face it – pitiful monster.”
Initially Williams wrote this as a one-act play featuring only Alexandra and Chance. Kazan persuaded him to expand it, so he brought in Boss Finley and his family and the St Cloud people, who are all hostile to Chance. In the background is the story of a black man who was attacked and castrated, and Boss Finley turned a blind eye to this event. Chance fears his own fate, and also learns that at some time he has infected his beloved Heavenly with a sexual disease; she has had a botched hysterectomy, which has left her barren and bitter.
This volatile cocktail has painful effects in a visceral second act which takes place in the downstairs bar of the hotel where Boss Finley is to hold a rally and make a big speech. A drunken, drug-filled Chance tries and fails to convince his former friends that he is on the way to Hollywood stardom. Meanwhile, Alexandra has learned that her fears have proved wrong about her new movie, which has had critical success. She offers Chance the opportunity to escape an angry situation by getting out of town fast and remaining her driver. Will Chance take the chance? He explains his feelings and his decision in a powerful and emotional speech directed straight at the audience at the end of the play.
This work provides dramatic and memorable theatre. The treatment of the characters and issues make for universal interest, whereas some Williams’ epics seem more removed from everyday life. The performances, especially by the two award-winning leads, and the sets are superb; and there is masterly direction from Jonathan Kent (who directed hits for Chichester and London like the Chekhov trilogy, ‘Gypsy’, and ‘Sweeney Todd’). You are urged to grab the opportunity to taste this wonderful cocktail in the next two weeks, with the run of ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’ at the Festival Theatre ending on June 24.
by Nick Keith